Across the country, congregations of many faiths are awakening to a kind of earth spirituality rooted in their sacred writings and traditions.
Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics have been among the leaders in the charge, incorporating themes of caring for creation into their prayers, sermons and liturgies. But there is a growing, though still nascent, awareness among evangelicals and Pentecostal Christians, who also see the world's environmental problems essentially as a crisis of the spirit.
One example of the increasing number of environment-oriented rituals will unfold this weekend as Jewish congregations mark Tu B'Shevat, a holiday that has evolved into something of a Jewish Earth Day.
In Orange County, the holiday--also called Jewish Arbor Day--was marked by many synagogues during Shabbat services Friday.
At Temple Isaiah of Newport Beach, children brought in plants and listened to a rabbi explain the holiday's significance. Students at the Morasha Day School in Rancho Santa Margarita last week planted trees on the site of their new school to mark the holiday.
In many congregations the day becomes a time to reflect on humanity's place in the natural order and on scriptural injunctions to redeem the land. In modern Israel, the day is associated with reclaiming the desert for agriculture.
"Five years ago many Jews questioned whether the environment was a Jewish issue," said Rabbi Mark X. Jacobs, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, based in New York.
Today that attitude has changed significantly.
Against the dramatic backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains on Sunday, a group under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund--including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and representatives of major environmental organizations--will host ceremonies, nature walks and tree plantings in the Angeles National Forest just above Azusa.
Other congregations in the region will engage in local efforts at environmental improvement. For example, B'Nai David, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles, will lead an effort to plant trees along a commercial strip of Pico Boulevard.
Religious leaders in other faiths are developing educational materials, model worship services and sermon outlines for use by congregations and pastors.
Perspectives on religious environmentalism vary. Although white churches tend to see the issue as a crisis in spirit, African American churches for the most part focus on civic activism. Efforts to oppose a toxic waste dump in a poor neighborhood, for example, resonate more than abstract ideas about "caring for creation," African American church leaders say.
"There are some shining [exceptions]. But African American churches still have a hard time for the most part understanding the need to use their faith as a way of going into action around these issues," said the Rev. Eugene Williams, executive director of Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches, an association of small to medium-size African American congregations.
Among Christians, one of the most notable efforts is the observance of the blessing of the animals on St. Francis day at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
"When the two-ton bronze doors of the cathedral open up and there is a procession of animals down a nave the length of two football fields, the place goes very silent and there are more than a few people with tears," said Paul Gorman of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
"I have asked myself what are those tears? As nearly as I can understand it, I think those are tears that express both the recognition of alienation between humankind and the rest of creation and the yearning for reconciliation."
Earth spirituality has long been a part of many faiths. Buddhism, for example, offers a holistic world view that fosters respect for the created order. In Jainism the protection of animals is a central feature of religious observances. Native Americans are renowned for their regard for the sacredness of nature.
In Islam, there is no single day set aside to consider the protection of creation. But there is a developing sense among Muslim leaders that they must apply Koranic teachings to contemporary environmental problems.
During drought conditions in California several years ago, Maher Hathout, spokesman with the Islamic Center of Southern California near downtown Los Angeles, said that Friday worship observances were an occasion to preach about the sacredness of water.
"The Koran considers water as a blessing [that] should not be wasted," Hathout said. "There is a teaching that you do not waste water even if you are at the river."
Such ancient injunctions, found in many faiths, are becoming a way of inviting believers to consider environmental issues within the context of their faiths--to repair and preserve the natural world not as a political act but as an act of faith and respect for the created order.